Column: Mid-Major Programs Becoming More Intriguing

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Back around the early 1970’s, there was a dynasty formed in college basketball. Not one built for the decade, but one that was meant to last.

Collegiate hall of famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton donned the blue and white jersey with the yellow stitching that read four letters on the front, “UCLA.”

They played for a legendary coach in John Wooden, who created a program that holds the record for the most Final Four appearances (18) and NCAA titles (11).

They helped build a tradition of success. Every title-contending recruit wanted to be a UCLA Bruin. To coach the Bruins was an honor, as they were chosen to continue the winning tradition.

Times have certainly changed for not just the Bruins, but college basketball.

Just recently, two coaches, Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart, both declined an opportunity to walk the sidelines in UCLA’s Pauly Pavilion to stay with their respective mid-major programs.

They chose to not coach at the program that has a chance to get “five-star” recruits to instead stay at the mid-major powerhouses they have successfully built.

At first, it’s a sign of loyalty, remaining with a program they helped build. But after taking a closer look at what each program offers to the coaches, is the UCLA coaching vacancy, which was recently filled by New Mexico’s Steve Alford, really that desirable?

With the “one-and-done” rule instituted by the NBA, athletes that have dreams of pursuing a professional basketball career have to spend one year out of high school before entering the NBA Draft. These athletes are typically the five-star recruits that head to the big time schools.

Sometimes it works. The 2011-12 Kentucky starting lineup featured two sophomores and three freshmen, and the Wildcats won the NCAA Tournament.

But the entire starting five entered the NBA Draft and coach John Calipari had to rebuild an entire new roster with five-star recruits. The rebuilt roster didn’t make the NCAA Tournament the next year and lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris.

There’s always a rebuilding process for teams that bring in these five-star recruits. Kentucky will most likely have to replace this year’s star Nerlens Noel. UCLA will have to do the same with Shabazz Muhammad. It’s what teams accept when they bring in these big-time recruits.

But what does that do to a team? It’s extremely difficult to bring in an entirely different group of freshmen, have them learn a system in the offseason, and win enough games to make the NCAA Tournament.

That’s what makes these mid-major programs so desirable for coaches. Stevens has his career set in Butler. Smart has developed a winner at VCU. And the high standards that have already developed with these programs bring in recruits that come for all four years of eligibility, not just one.

Every smart coach wants a player that comes in and learns the program. It’s what builds a championship contending team. Even if they don’t contend for a title, the mid-majors play a system that surprises the top teams and creates Cinderella stories in the NCAA Tournament.

This happened just a year ago at Ohio University with coach John Groce. It took some time to construct, but the former Ohio coach developed a system with players that he recruited, and they went to the Sweet Sixteen as a 13 seed. If Groce had recruited a group of freshmen that were brand new to the system, they probably couldn’t have beaten Michigan, South Florida or gone to overtime with North Carolina. It’s the experience and chemistry that molds the best teams.

But after seeing coaches like Smart stay at VCU, why would Groce leave a successful program to go to Illinois?

Some say the money (Groce earns $1.2 million per year at Illinois), while others say to take on the challenge of the Big Ten. Both are probably true, but several fans had hoped he’d return because of how successful Ohio was in 2012.

But there’s a difference between an offer from UCLA and one from Illinois. UCLA is an ideal destination for a one-and-done player. Illinois is not. Since going 37-2 in 2005, Illinois has had just two players enter the NBA Draft early, All-Star Deron Williams and lottery selection Meyers Leonard.

Groce saw the opportunity to build his system in Illinois, while getting a pay raise and coaching in the Big Ten. He’s already had great success in his first year, leading the Illini to the NCAA Tournament and defeating Colorado before losing to No. 2 seed Miami (FL) in the third round.

Groce also has three four-star recruits coming into his program next season, and will likely have them for all four years as he prepares to build a strong contender in the Big Ten.

In many ways, Ohio coach Jim Christian is doing the same thing now in Athens. After losing a strong senior class that gave Groce so much success at Ohio, Christian is transitioning the program to his style of play with new recruits coming in.

D.J. Cooper and Reggie Keely both made great strides in Christian’s first year at the helm, but both leave for graduation. In his two previous coaching stints with Kent State and TCU, Christian liked to utilize the inside game and have a strong scoring point guard. That remained true with Ohio, as Cooper was the team’s leading scorer this past season.

The lack of size killed Ohio, as Keely was the only scoring threat inside. That’s why Christian made it a priority to bring in some height through recruitment. He rounded up three big men in high school seniors Antonio Campbell and Wadley Mompremier and Junior College transfer Maurice Ndour.

While he builds the team inside through recruitment, Christian has point guard Stevie Taylor returning for his junior year and Texas Tech transfer Javarez “Bean” Willis becoming eligible to play. Those two will battle for playing time and have an opportunity to score in bunches from the point guard position.

With the right pieces, the Bobcats have a chance to win the MAC Championship and get the desired bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Groce and the 2012 Bobcats have already set the bar high for not only expecting to reach the NCAA Tournament, but also advancing into the later rounds. Now it’s up to Christian to maintain a winning tradition not just for a decade, but one that’s built to last.